In May of this year, the Department of Entomology at Texas A&M University celebrated the grand opening of the Rollins Urban and Structural Entomology Facility in College Station, Texas. The 10,000-square-foot building is a premier training ground for today and tomorrow’s entomologists, featuring state-of-the-art research laboratories, a conference room, offices and training areas.
The man charged with leading the new Texas A&M facility and the university’s entomology program is 2015 PCT/Syngenta Crown Leadership Award winner Dr. Ed Vargo, who became the academic institution’s Professor and Endowed Chair for Urban and Structural Entomology in 2014 after a long and productive stint with North Carolina State University’s Department of Entomology. Vargo took over for Dr. Roger Gold, longtime endowed chair of the department who retired in January. The opening of the new facility was Gold’s final, lasting legacy at Texas A&M.
“I’m really pleased and honored to be in this position,” said Vargo. “The transition has gone really smoothly. I think the challenge for me is to live up to the standards that Dr. Gold had established and to make sure I continue to meet the needs and expectations of all the industry supporters.”
This career move is a natural progression for Vargo, who has become a respected urban entomologist during the last 17 years. His accomplishments include providing the pest control industry with cutting-edge research and support, training events, and developing many urban entomologists now working in the field.
Path To Texas A&M
Vargo is very much at home in urban entomology today, but his career aspirations were not always to work in this field. A native of California’s Bay Area, Vargo’s early interests included sports and surfing. Vargo, whose father Albert was a Navy veteran and systems administrator at Lockheed Corporation, said he and his family spent a lot of time outdoors where he gained a great appreciation for nature and the sciences.
An important influence on Vargo was his mother Anna, who introduced him to Eastern philosophy and meditation practices in high school, so much so that he enrolled at Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa, with an interest in pursuing a degree in philosophy. “That experience was good for me because I really learned to appreciate learning,” Vargo said. The other academic area Vargo was interested in was biology and he eventually decided to pursue his undergraduate degree in the field. Through Vargo’s biology studies he became interested in social insects, especially after reading “The Lives of a Cell” by Lewis Thomas.
Vargo began his post-graduate degree pursuit at the University of Massachusetts in 1980, where he studied social insects, particularly termites, under biology professor Dr. Alastair Stuart, a student of legendary biologist E.O. Wilson. After one year at UMass, Vargo transferred to the University of Georgia, where he would complete his Ph.D., in entomology, in 1986. Studying under UGA entomology professor Murray Blum, Vargo’s focus was on fire ants and the role the queen plays in regulating reproduction and development, specifically the production of new alates in the colony. Also at the University of Georgia, Vargo met his future first wife, Carol.
Vargo’s academic pursuits then took him to the University of Texas, where he was able to secure a National Science Foundation grant to study under noted entomologist Luc Passera in Toulouse, France. In France, Vargo was able to apply some of the work he did with fire ants (at UGA) to Argentine ants. Also while he was in France, Ed and Carol welcomed the birth of their daughter, Ana, now 27.
The Vargos returned to Austin, Texas in 1989, and Ed resumed his entomology research at the University of Texas that year. At UT, Vargo began to gain a greater appreciation for applied science. Some of the funding Vargo received came from the Texas Department of Agriculture so he started to interact extensively with TDA officials, performing outreach and public education. “I started to see that what we do can have a really strong impact on people’s lives and can really help improve people’s lives,” said Vargo.
A State-of-the-Art Facility
In May, the Texas A&M University Department of Entomology celebrated the grand opening of the Rollins Urban and Structural Entomology Facility in College Station. The new building is named in honor of the O. Wayne Rollins Foundation, whose $2 million gift helped make the long-awaited dream a reality.
The building has three wings all contained within the space. It includes a research wing with four research laboratories, with each separated from the other in terms of air handling, separate plumbing and electrical services to avoid possible issues with cross contamination. Other features include:
- An insectary where insects will be in culture for use in bioassays and behavioral lab work.
- A pesticide analytical laboratory that provides the department with space and equipment to continue its pesticide durability and longevity work.
- A genetic and molecular sciences laboratory for moving forward the department’s new DNA analysis capabilities that it started several years ago.
- A conference room and a training room in the middle section of the building, which can be divided or expanded depending on the specific programs. The Philip J. Hamman Termite Control Training School was recently moved from the Riverside campus to the grounds of the new building, which provides a quality room for technical training using computers and microscope connectivity.
- Administrative staff, faculty and researchers’ offices, and shared space for graduate students and student workers will be located in the third wing.
Ed Vargo, the department’s Endowed Chair for Urban and Structural Entomology, said, “It’s an inspiring place to conduct research, mentor students and hold training sessions. It’s truly an exciting time for urban entomology at Texas A&M.”
With this new-found appreciation for urban entomology Vargo began pursuing positions in the field, including an opening in 1998 at North Carolina State University — a well-established program that includes notable researchers Dr. Jules Silverman, Dr. Mike Waldvogel and Dr. Coby Schal. The N.C. State opening was for a wood-destroying insect position — not an area Vargo had a lot of experience with — but as he noted “they took a risk to hire somebody who didn’t have a background in termites, but someone who was a good scientist.”
In addition to being impressed by Vargo’s 17 years of research on social insects, Schal identified that Vargo “had the motivation and enthusiasm to redirect his research to termites and to more applied, pest management-oriented approaches.”
Making His Mark
At N.C. State, Vargo made his mark studying colony population genetics for termites — an area where there had been very little research. “I thought, ‘What could I do that would satisfy my interest, my curiosity about basic biology about termites and also help the industry?’ At that time there was a lot of work being done on colony population genetics on ants, bees and wasps, but very little on termites.”
Vargo’s arrival at N.C. State also coincided with important developments regarding non-repellent termiticides. Vargo and his research team performed termite research that was invaluable to industry product manufacturers. For example, one of Vargo’s graduate students was Vince Parman, whose doctoral degree project involved studying the transfer of non-repellent termiticides within colonies.
Vargo and his team also collaborated with pest control operators. For example, N.C. State wanted to study in-ground termite bait stations and Steve Taylor, president of Capital Pest Services, stepped up and volunteered. Recalls Vargo, “Steve said, ‘Well we’ve got this big apartment complex that’s already under contract, why don’t you just tap in to that?’ We did and it was a great collaboration.”
These and other experiences gave Vargo an even greater appreciation for the work pest professionals perform. “I was really impressed with the degree of professionalism of the people I worked with, with their knowledge of pests and the different techniques for controlling pests. I really appreciated their first-hand experience with structures, pest biology, knowledge of how pest infestations occur and the use of tools to take care of pest problems.”
In addition to both basic and applied research at N.C. State, Vargo trained graduate students and post-doctoral researchers, collaborated with other researchers within and outside the department, and established an international reputation for his scholarship in the field. “Ed fit perfectly into our vision of an urban entomology program that would target major pests such as termites, cockroaches and ants,” Schal said.
Vargo, in turn, appreciated the way the N.C. State Urban Entomology Department worked together. “I think we formed a really great team. Sometimes you’ll find a big split between applied and basic researchers within a department, but that was not the case at N.C. State. There were no boundaries and I think Coby Schal deserves credit for that. He’s been a great model for me and I think he’s a great model for urban entomology programs in general.”
Vargo’s tenure at N.C. State was a positive, fulfilling experience and eventually he became head of the department. However, after 17 years at N.C. State, Vargo was ready for the next challenge. That opportunity arose with the Texas A&M opening in 2014. It was known throughout entomology circles that Gold, who came to Texas A&M in 1989, would soon be retiring after 25 years. The opening was appealing to Vargo, and others, for a variety of reasons. In addition to the position being an endowed chair, Texas A&M’s Urban Entomology program is considered a “crown jewel” among university programs; it has a rich history, is well funded and strongly supported by industry.
“With the support from the industry that exists here in Texas, and the program that Roger put together, it was just too good of a situation to pass up,” said Vargo. “I always admired the relationship between the program and industry — both within the state and at the national level. I was always impressed with the number of trained graduate students who come through this program. Because of the resources available here, many of which are the result of the support industry has provided, you can support those students and their pursuits.”
While N.C. State’s Schal laments the fact that Vargo has left the department, he understands it’s the best decision for him, and Texas A&M. “Ed brings the complete package of a leader; he’s a top-notch researcher, enthusiastic teacher, and a very nice guy,” Schal said. “Ed is an exceptionally talented entomologist, researcher, educator and former department head.”
While Vargo was interviewing for the position he got an opportunity to see plans and sketches for the new state-of-the-art urban entomology facility (see related story, right table above). One of the features of the new facility is a large conference/meeting room that is well equipped for hosting industry partners. “We’ve already hosted a couple industry trainings. We’ve had a termite technician’s school in the spring where we did the lecture part here. Practically on a weekly basis we meet with industry partners and it’s just a great environment to meet with them.”
Vargo said an important factor in the success of the Texas A&M program was the fact that Gold’s research projects involved industry so closely, a tradition he will carry forward. “It’s important that we keep that same level of involvement and choose projects that are important for us and important for the industry,” he said. “We want to make sure that we are constantly improving products that are available to help with pest control problems.” At the same time, Vargo plans on utilizing the new facility to its fullest potential by expanding beyond basic research and into areas like genetics, behavior, physiology and reproduction of urban pests. “Right now the focus is on key urban pests such as subterranean termites and a couple invasive ants, such as tawny crazy ant, dark rover ant and the red imported fire ant,” he said.
While Vargo is excited about research coming out of Texas A&M, what really drives him is connecting with the students he works with on a daily basis. “I have, maybe 10 or 15 years left in my career, and when I’m finished and look back at my career what really matters is the students that I’ve trained and them carrying on their work in urban entomology.”
Earlier this year, Ed Vargo and wife Annette got married after the couple had been together for seven years. Annette, who is a visual artist, has created several insect paintings and drawings that decorate his office.
Ed has three children from his previous marriage, daughter Ana (27) and sons Gabriel (25) and Nathan (21), all of whom live in North Carolina. Ana, who previously worked in the N.C. State Entomology lab, is going to graduate school to become a nutritionist, while Gabriel works as a carpenter and Nathan as a musician.
Ed remains an outdoorsman who enjoys hiking and, especially, cycling. In fact, Ed now commutes 10.5 miles each way to work on his bike. Cycling also is an activity he and Annette often do together.